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Why time seems to accelerate as we get older and what we can do to slow it down

How time works is totally trippy, but there are some "tricks" to change how our brains process it.

hourglass and clocks with screenshot of post saying 1980 and 2023 are as far apart as 1937 and 1980
Jordan Benton/Canva

Time is weird.

You're going along, minding your own business on the internet, when suddenly this little gem comes across your timeline:

screenshot that reads "1980 and 2023 are as far apart as 1937 and 1980 were. Sleep tight, odl fogies"1980 to 2023 = 1937 to 1980. How can that math be right? Kevin Smith/GenX Only Facebook Group

Your first reaction is, "Nuh-uh, no way," so you pull out the calculator to do the math yourself—several times because you're sure you must've missed a number somewhere. You remember how long ago 1937 seemed in 1980, and there's no possible way that much time has passed between 1980 and now. Then, as the warped reality of time washes over you, you sit and stare in stunned silence, contemplating the existential crisis.

Why does time work this way? Why does it seem to get faster and faster and condense to make decades seem shorter and shorter as we age? And perhaps more importantly, how the heck do we stop time from feeling like a runaway freight train?


Here are a few theories about what creates the freight train phenomenon.

Time perception is relative—and kids perceive it differently

"Time flies when you're having fun" is a saying for a reason. Time also drags when you're doing drudgery work and feels like it stands still in moments of significance. And yet the ticking of seconds as they go by doesn't change tempo. We measure it with steady, unchanging beats, but how it feels changes constantly.

This relativity exists in every passing moment, but it also exists in the bigger picture as well. The years felt like they passed by much more slowly when we were children, and by middle age, they feel like they pass in the blink of an eye. The pandemic gave us an even greater sense of this relativity as disruptions to our normal routines and the stress associated with the COVID-19 years messed with our sense of time. (On an odd side note, surveys show that our time perception during the pandemic varied a lot from place to place—people in some parts of the world felt that time moved more slowly, while others felt time moved more quickly.)

According to a 2023 Hungarian study published in Nature Scientific Reports, very young children perceive time differently than older children and adults. Researchers split 138 people into three age groups—pre-kindergarten, school-age and adults 18 and over—and showed them two videos of the same duration, one that was "eventful" and one that was "uneventful." Interestingly, the pre-K group perceived the eventful video to be longer, while the older children and adults saw the uneventful video as longer.

The way the study participants described the length of the videos in gestures was also telling. Young children were much more likely to use vertical hand gestures, connoting volume or magnitude, to indicate a length of time than the other two age groups. School-aged kids and adults tended to use horizontal gestures, indicating time as linear, increasing with age.

Our neural processing slows down as we age

Professor Adrian Bejan has a theory based on how neurons process signals. As we age, our neural networks increase in size and complexity, and as a result, process visual information at a slower rate. That slower processing means we create fewer mental images each second than we did when we were younger, thereby making time seem to slow down.

“People are often amazed at how much they remember from days that seemed to last forever in their youth, Bejan shared with Harvard University. "It’s not that their experiences were much deeper or more meaningful; it’s just that they were being processed in rapid fire.”

In other words, processing the same number of mental images we did in our youth takes longer now, somewhat counterintuitively making time seem to pass more quickly. So goes the theory, anyway.

It might simply be about time-to-life ratios

Another popular theory about why time feels different as a child than it does as an adult is the ratio of any given day, week or year to the amount of time we've been alive. To a 5-year-old, a year is 20% of their entire life. For a 50-year-old, a year only is 0.2% of their life, so it feels like it went by much more quickly.

It's also a matter of how much change has happened in that year. A year in the life of a 5-year-old is full of rapid growth and change and learning and development. A year in the life of a 50-year-old probably isn't a whole lot different than when they were 48 or 49. Even if there are major life changes, the middle-aged brain isn't evolving at nearly the same rate as a child. A 50-year-old looking back at the past year will have a lot fewer changes to process than a 5-year-old, therefore the year will seems like it went by a lot faster.

“Our perception of days, weeks, years and that kind of time seems to be especially influenced by our perspective: Are we in the moment experiencing it, or are we looking backward on time?” psychology professor Cindy Lustig told the University of Michigan.

The key to slowing it all down? Be mindful of the present moment.

Lustig has a point. When we are in the moment, our perception of time is much different than when we look back. So, being fully conscious in the present moment can help us rein in the freight train effect.

One way to do that is to be mindful of your physical existence in this moment. Feel your heart beating. Feel your breath going in and out. Cornell University psychology professor Adam Anderson, Ph.D., conducted a study that found our perception of time may be linked with the length of our heartbeats. (Study participants were fitted with electrocardiograms and asked to listen to a brief audio tone. They perceived the tone as longer after a longer heartbeat and shorter after a shorter one.) He suggests starting a stopwatch, closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing for what you think feels like a minute. Then, check your time to see how accurate your estimation was.

“This can give you a sense of how much your experience of your body is related to your experience of time,” Anderson told WebMD. “It will help teach you to enjoy the pure experience of time.”

You can also use focused breathing to purposely slow down your heart rate, and thus slow down your time perception. “We show that slow heart rates—that is, a longer duration between heartbeats—dilates time, slowing it down," Anderson said.

Finally, try to take in the world the way you did as a small child. Take note of life's wonders. Engage fully in whatever you're doing. Notice details and take mental pictures as much as you can. Time goes by fast when we're distracted, so training our attention on the here and now can help. Ultimately, we can strive to perceive time more like we did when we were little, in its full depth and magnitude instead of a narrow, straight line.

Identity

Celebrate International Women's Day with these stunning photos of female leaders changing the world

The portraits, taken by acclaimed photographer Nigel Barker, are part of CARE's "She Leads the World" campaign.

Images provided by CARE

Kadiatu (left), Zainab (right)

True

Women are breaking down barriers every day. They are transforming the world into a more equitable place with every scientific discovery, athletic feat, social justice reform, artistic endeavor, leadership role, and community outreach project.

And while these breakthroughs are happening all the time, International Women’s Day (Mar 8) is when we can all take time to acknowledge the collective progress, and celebrate how “She Leads the World.

This year, CARE, a leading global humanitarian organization dedicated to empowering women and girls, is celebrating International Women’s Day through the power of portraiture. CARE partnered with high-profile photographer Nigel Barker, best known for his work on “America’s Next Top Model,” to capture breathtaking images of seven remarkable women who have prevailed over countless obstacles to become leaders within their communities.

“Mabinty, Isatu, Adama, and Kadiatu represent so many women around the world overcoming incredible obstacles to lead their communities,” said Michelle Nunn, President and CEO of CARE USA.

Barker’s bold portraits, as part of CARE’s “She Leads The World” campaign, not only elevate each woman’s story, but also shine a spotlight on how CARE programs helped them get to where they are today.

About the women:

Mabinty

international womens day, care.org

Mabinty is a businesswoman and a member of a CARE savings circle along with a group of other women. She buys and sells groundnuts, rice, and fuel. She and her husband have created such a successful enterprise that Mabinty volunteers her time as a teacher in the local school. She was the first woman to teach there, prompting a second woman to do so. Her fellow teachers and students look up to Mabinty as the leader and educator she is.

Kadiatu

international womens day, care.org

Kadiatu supports herself through a small business selling food. She also volunteers at a health clinic in the neighboring village where she is a nursing student. She tests for malaria, works with infants, and joins her fellow staff in dancing and singing with the women who visit the clinic. She aspires to become a full-time nurse so she can treat and cure people. Today, she leads by example and with ambition.

Isatu

international womens day, care.org

When Isatu was three months pregnant, her husband left her, seeking his fortune in the gold mines. Now Isatu makes her own way, buying and selling food to support her four children. It is a struggle, but Isatu is determined to be a part of her community and a provider for her kids. A single mother of four is nothing if not a leader.

Zainab

international womens day, care.org

Zainab is the Nurse in Charge at the Maternal Child Health Outpost in her community. She is the only nurse in the surrounding area, and so she is responsible for the pre-natal health of the community’s mothers-to-be and for the safe delivery of their babies. In a country with one of the world’s worst maternal death rates, Zainab has not lost a single mother. The community rallies around Zainab and the work she does. She describes the women who visit the clinic as sisters. That feeling is clearly mutual.

Adama

international womens day, care.org

Adama is something few women are - a kehkeh driver. A kehkeh is a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi, known elsewhere as a tuktuk. Working in the Kissy neighborhood of Freetown, Adama is the primary breadwinner for her family, including her son. She keeps her riders safe in other ways, too, by selling condoms. With HIV threatening to increase its spread, this is a vital service to the community.

Ya Yaebo

international womens day, care.org

“Ya” is a term of respect for older, accomplished women. Ya Yaebo has earned that title as head of her local farmers group. But there is much more than that. She started as a Village Savings and Loan Association member and began putting money into her business. There is the groundnut farm, her team buys and sells rice, and own their own oil processing machine. They even supply seeds to the Ministry of Agriculture. She has used her success to the benefit of people in need in her community and is a vocal advocate for educating girls, not having gone beyond grade seven herself.

On Monday, March 4, CARE will host an exhibition of photography in New York City featuring these portraits, kicking off the multi-day “She Leads the World Campaign.

Learn more, view the portraits, and join CARE’s International Women's Day "She Leads the World" celebration at CARE.org/sheleads.


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